The amendment to the AV referendum requiring a turnout of 40% essentially means that the Lords have just voted to ignore the voters. In years where there is no general election the turnout is highly unlikely to be hit this arbitrary target. Setting an almost impossible bar can even be a self-fulfilling prophecy: informed members of the electorate could reasonably conclude they would be wasting their time. In short, the Lords are telling the willing voter to bugger off and stop bothering their betters.
A few facts may be in order. I do concede I’ve made an assumption that turnout for local elections is a reasonable measure. I think that’s fair. It does not dismiss or belittle electoral mechanics to describe them as a worthy but exceedingly dull aspect of governing a nation. I am interested; I wouldn’t bring it up on an average weekend. Getting two thirds of the turnout of a general election would be a great result – and yet that’s only 2% above the Lords suggested threshold for listening to the public. It’s been a while since we’ve had that kind of turnout. From 1973 – 99, the average turnout in local elections was 41.7%:
More recently, and in line with the declining trend in turnout, since 1998 there has only been one year where turnout barely reached 40% (not including ’01 and ’05 which also had parliamentary elections):
When there is historical data available, the choice of threshold matters. Even more so when the decision makers can be expected to have a rough feel for the numbers. Local elections are an important part of the constitutional arrangements of the UK. It’s not as if they were discussing obscure parts of setting fishing quotas. If the Lords were genuinely unaware that 40% is a very high threshold that fundamentally changes the nature of the Bill, it’s only more reason to push for reform.
If the amendment was intended to say that the result of any referendum should only be guidance and not binding, then that argument should have been made directly. If the purpose was to genuinely ensure that only strong turnouts result in binding decisions, then the threshold should be an arbitrary figure (or even, perhaps, one chosen quite deliberately to scupper the entire exercise). Somewhere in the low 30s might be appropriate. I would still disagree, because the idea that a low turnout means that the people can’t demand electoral reform is perverse. But at least the amendment have some kind of principle behind it.
In a fit of generosity, I might allow that a principle of caution or prudence is at play. The Bill does not propose anything that amounts to more than a minor tweak to Parliament, however. It is not a huge constitutional change, it is not particularly expensive, and it can be reversed. Excess caution results in stagnation, which is in fact quite a dangerous phenomenon. If the principle is one of prudence, it is being badly applied.
Back in 1979, a similar trick was played, using a different form of 40% threshold in the Scotland devolution referendum. That time, the requirement was that 40% of the electorate had to vote Yes. Turnout was a remarkably high 63.8%, but the result was only a slim majority with 51.6% voting Yes. In other words, “only” 32% or so voted Yes. Enough to win a general election with a stunning majority, start a war or two and plunge the entire country into debt, but not enough to make an incremental improvement to the system of government. The long term outcome? It did nothing but delay the inevitable by twenty years, fostering of a genuine sense of resentment and a deepening of the distrust of Parliament. We can only hope the House decides to get rid of this fundamentally undemocratic and insulting amendment. They did after all chuck out a similar amendment 549 to 31 last November.
Not being of a particularly ideological bent, I tend not to get too exercised by the tribal warfare between the different parties and their members. But one reason I’m firmly in the Lib Dem camp is because it is the only major party that truly believes I should have a say in how the country is governed. Labour and the Tories are quite happy playing their game of Buggins’s Turn to see who gets to play with the country next. AV and a reduction in the number of MPs will not change this much. I find it pretty dispiriting to watch peers of the realm clinging on to a decrepit system without even the spine to make their case honestly.